On the problems of Identification contained in the (Un)Fair Elections Act

The following is a guest post from Keith Gardner, a M.A. student at Carleton University studying political parties and democratic structure. 

I want to first regale you with a personal story. I’m white. I’m male. I’m straight. I’m protestant. I have a very anglo last name. I have had the great fortune of pursuing multiple academic degrees. All of this is to say that I am a person who lives his life in a highly privileged body. 

However, growing up in a small southern Alberta town, I wasn’t always a member of a hegemonic group – my family was a religious minority in our town, and we weren’t rich or well-connected. Often, this left me (and my family) feeling as though we didn’t have too much of a say in the way our community, country, or province was governed. Except for on Election Day. 

On Election Day, my parents would take me and my sisters to the polling station with them as they cast their ballots. Those days, we were just like every other family in our small town – mormon kids, poor kids, farm kids – all of their parents would go to the polling station and cast their ballot. What was most special about Election Day, though, was that on that day, the x that my parents marked (and those of the mormon kids, the poor kids and the farm kids) was just as important as anyone else’s. So was the x my grandfather marked, a man who had immigrated from the Netherlands in the immediate aftermath of the Second World Warwho had laboured manually his entire life, and had a fifth grade education (despite being one of the most clever men I’ve ever met). That day, regardless of our privileges or lack thereof, everyone’s voice was equal.

Forgive the personal anecdote and my proselytizing on the egalitarian power of the polling station, but I think it serves to highlight the most fundamental element of democracy: everyone’s voice is equal, and there are no barriers to expressing that other than membership in the community.

Now, on the count of vouching: on paper getting rid of it seems like a good and fair thing. The argument that you should be able to provide identification to show that you are eligible to vote seems simple enough to most of us. Canada has some of the most liberal suffrage laws in the world as it stands currently (incarcerated citizens, those without permanent addresses and others are allowed to vote here that would not be able to vote in other liberal democracies) so we should ensure that those very minimal requirements are being enforced. Our parameters for basic political community membership are very open in this country, which is a very good thing. 

It should be noted that many of the voter ID previsions in the FEA are a response to a problem of voter fraud, which there is simply no empirically sound evidence to suggest exists. Many have argued that declining voter turnout is more of a risk to the health of our democracy than voter fraud is (political science luminaries like Lijphart, 1997 and Pateman, 1970 have made this argument – more on this later). 

Requiring a certain “something” to be able to vote is powerfully anti-democratic. In a democracy, every member of the community (defined in Canada as a citizen) has the right to vote, not merely the privilege. By requiring something that costs money or at the very least social capital to attain (which various forms of ID do), the FEA is effectively asking for an admission cost to partake in something that should be fundamentally free and open to all comers. 

Thinking back to the Election Day experiences of my small town childhood, I’m forced to think about what those experiences would be like if my parents weren’t able to pay to get a proper ID to vote, either because they couldn’t afford it or didn’t know the proper channels to go through. We wouldn’t have been the same as other families on Election Day: I would have instead felt more powerless and excluded from the community than usual. 

There are two ways in which the proposed FEA puts up barriers to participation in elections, effectively introducing costs and threatening that all-important equality of voice: 

1) It removes the use of Voter Identification cards to prove residence. This means that if you moved recently and don’t have any other way of proving your current residence you are effectively disenfranchised. So, if I’m a student with a driver’s license that has my parents’ address on it (got my photo ID!), and I go to the polling station, I have no way of proving that I live in the constituency. This is especially interesting given the fact that some of the most common ways of proving residency outside of the VICs are bills – which are increasingly issued in digital form and thus easy to forge. 
2) It removes the use of vouching. This is the big one, and it goes beyond proving residency to proving eligibility, and cuts to the core of your parents’ questions. Many folks have difficulty getting photo id for a number of reasons: 

  • It costs money (you shouldn’t have to pay anything to vote)
  • If you don’t drive, you’re less likely to have one (again, this is a socio-economic class thing)
  • If you live in a remote community, far away from issuing agencies, you are less likely to be able to get one (a region thing)
  • Indigenous folks and other marginalized groups often don’t have ID for a number of reasons, many of them occurring in the intersections of the three above

Vouching has historically been the “safety valve” that we have used in Canada to ensure that even in these situations, people are able to vote without paying a cost of admission to do so. 

OK. So this tells us at a personal level why ID laws as they have been written here are not defensible on democratic grounds. It’s not so much that you shouldn’t have to produce ID to vote, but that if it is a requirement to vote that the state should provide ID to you in a cost-free manner (a system that they use in India). Of course, because of how large and disparate our country is, this itself presents many obstacles, but is a possibility.

Because it’s me, and I like to think about electoral implications of everything, we can also think of this in terms of governmental outcomes. Because those that are impacted the most by changes to the law (ie: removal of VICs and vouching) will tend to be among the most-disadvantaged people in the country, their voices will be excised more than they already are from the collective decision making process that is a general election. This means that politicians will not need to listen to the needs of those people when making making public decisions (Lutz and Marsh, 2007), which in turn augments the power of the already-privileged group (Lijphart, 1997). While some scholars have debated the empirical veracity of such claims (Rosema, 2007 as well as Pettersen and Rose, 2007), the fact remains that there would be serious and disproportionately distributed democratic silences, which in Canada would likely mean the replication of power by certain parties and interests (cough). 

In any case, the FEA puts up meaningful barriers to participation, which is anti-democratic by nature, but it also has other provisions with pernicious implications for Canada’s democratic health. In terms of an aggregation of resources the topic, UBC has a pretty good one going at: http://www.democracy.arts.ubc.ca/fairelectionsact/ 

Lijphart, Arend. 1997. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.” American
Political Science Review 91(1): 1-14.

Lutz, George and Michael Marsh. 2007. “Introduction: Consequences of Low Turnout.”
Electoral Studies 
26(3): 539-547.

Pateman, Carole. 1970. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Pettersen, Per Arnt and Lawrence E. Rose. 2007. “The dog that didn’t bark: Would increased
electoral turnout make a difference?” Electoral Studies 26(3): 574-588.

Rosema, Martin. 2007. “Low Turnout: Threat to Democracy or Blessing in Disguise?
Consequences of Citizens’ varying tendencies to vote.” Electoral Studies 26(3): 612-623.


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